Regulation of Obscenity, Indecency and Profanity
It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It
is also a violation of federal law to broadcast indecent or profane
programming during certain hours.
Congress has given the
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the responsibility for
administratively enforcing the law that governs these types of broadcasts.
Among other things, the FCC has authority to issue civil monetary penalties,
revoke a license, and deny a renewal application. In addition, a federal
district court may impose fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years on
those who are convicted of criminal violations of the law.
The FCC vigorously enforces this law where we find violations, consistent
with constitutional and statutory protections of broadcasters' freedom of
speech. Beginning in 2006, due to ongoing litigation raising questions
about the Commission's indecency standard, the FCC temporarily deferred
enforcement action on most indecency cases while awaiting further direction
from the courts. More recently, the Commission resumed processing new cases
and initiating new investigations, where appropriate. Subsequent court
decisions, however, have again raised questions about the Commission's
During this period, we have continued to receive and process indecency
complaints. In addition, the Enforcement Bureau ("Bureau") has taken steps
to reduce the backlog of indecency complaints that resulted from past pauses
in enforcement activity. In particular, the Bureau has resumed its review
and processing of cases, including closing those cases based on complaints
alleging that a cable or satellite operator aired indecent material,
complaints concerning broadcast content that is outside of the scope of the
Commission's indecency enforcement authority based on Commission precedent,
as well as complaints alleging that a broadcaster aired indecent material
during the "safe harbor" hours between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., local time.
With respect to cable and satellite services, Congress has charged the
Commission with enforcing the statutory prohibition against airing indecent
programming "by means of radio communications." The Commission has
historically interpreted this restriction to apply to radio and television
broadcasters, and has never extended it to cover cable operators. In
addition, because cable and satellite services are subscription-based,
viewers of these services have greater control over the programming content
that comes into their homes, whereas broadcast content traditionally has
been available to any member of the public with a radio or television.
Regarding the safe harbor period, Congress and the courts have instructed
the Commission only to enforce the indecency standard between
the hours of
6 a.m. and 10 p.m., local time.
- when children are more likely to be in the audience. As a consequence,
the Commission does not take action on indecent material aired between 10
p.m. and 6:00 a.m. In this way, constitutionally-protected free speech
rights of adults are balanced with the need to protect children from harmful
Similarly, under court and agency precedent, the Commission's indecency
enforcement is limited to complaints alleging the broadcast of material that
describes or depicts sexual or excretory material. Complaints about
broadcast content involving smoking or drug use, for example, do not come
within the Commission's statutory authority over indecency. The Bureau
encourages consumers with complaints about offensive but non-indecent
material to express their concerns directly to their local broadcasters.
The Bureau processes indecency complaints consistent with the law and
precedent as outlined above, including the practice of closing cases
involving cable or satellite content or the statutory safe harbor, as well
as complaints about material that clearly falls outside the subject matter
scope of the Commission's indecency enforcement authority. Both the
Commission and the Bureau remain firmly committed to taking fair and
appropriate enforcement action against broadcasters who air indecent
material that is prohibited by the FCC's rules.